Mt. Whitney: The Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48


A couple of years ago, back when I was not a carless individual, I drove on a whim to Lone Pine, California. My primary objective: watch the sunrise over Mt. Whitney. Originally, I wanted to camp out in the Alabama Hills, but flash flood warnings kept blasting through the static and Christian talk radio and I didn’t want my first solo camping trip to be a wash out. I pulled into the second motel parking lot I saw; the first was a Best Western or something along those lines and definitely out of my price range. The night manager was a bleary eyed south Asian man who processed my transaction nearly wordlessly. My kind of fucking businessman. My laptop was dead and I was hungry, so I left the computer to charge and went to refuel. Long Pine is a small town with an interesting history (and not in that we’re going to scrounge up that one story where someone at one point might have robbed a stage coach and hidden in a “cave” five miles out of town); the nearby Alabama Hills were the backdrop for many a classic Western film. My restaurant choice reflected this history its cleverly titled menu items, western interior design (you have to love wagon wheel chandeliers), and a multitude of John Wayne memorabilia.

I’m seated right away but just after ordering my beverage, coffee, the electricity goes out. I didn’t much care as there was enough light to read by with the electric lanterns provided. I remember trying to get into Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, those fucking McSweeney’s guys I just can’t get into, while a photograph of someone in a cowboy hat and tight pants leered down at me.

My teriyaki burger and fries weren’t much to note, but I was inside, warm, and it was quiet, as most of the customers exited when the lights went out and they had to wait more than five minutes to fill their bottomless maws.

Tried from the drive, I showered and crawled into bed. I checked the sunrise time and set my alarm for forty-five minutes prior before passing out to the soporific glow of a serial killer documentary on Netflix.

When I woke in the morning it was no longer raining and actually it must have stopped early in the night since the asphalt was drying up quickly, but it was still the velvety dark and cold of night. I packed my bag and checked my camera equipment, making sure I had everything together. A new, similarly bleary eyed man checked me out of my room. I wish I could remember the name of the motel to advertise its delightful pedestrianess.

I reversed my trip of the day before to a turn on the road for the Alabama Hills. The sky was turning that dusty blue color that comes in the early morning. I parked the Jetta in a lot close to a bouldering area; I was the only car.

The ground was a clean, golden brown, the dust washed away by the previous day’s thunderstorm. Surrounding me are the boulders, large rounded iconic rocks of the forties and fifties Hollywood Westerns. I meandered through the rocks, the light casting black shadows between the spaces. I was looking for the rock: it had to high enough so I could see over the other rocks, but low enough that I could climb up easily with camera equipment in hand. Fifteen minutes later, I found the perfect spot and just in time. To my left the sun crested the horizon and crept up from the flat floor of the Owen’s Valley slowly lighting the wall of mountains, Mt. Whitney at its center.

I balanced my tripod on a flat section of the rock. I flattened myself on the cold rock, its rough surface scraping into the flesh of my knees. I check my camera settings, ready the automatic shutter release and wait. When the snow topped peak of California’s highest mountain transformed from its night time disguise of a blue gray snag tooth to orange, pink, purple mountain’s majesty, I press the shutter release over and over and over.

I have to be honest, the photo I got at the end? I wasn’t all that satisfied with. But what a singular, beautiful moment I had.